A bipartisan group of Senators are joining the ranks of Americans picking up paddles and playing the fastest growing sport in the country — pickleball.
Once a week, the group sets aside politics to play for a while. For Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., those moments of human connection sow seeds for better communication.
“It’s kind of hard to treat people in an untoward way if you’ve been out on pickleball court, on a mountain bike trail, spent time with them,” he told NPR. “We need to do more of this. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, a tennis-playing Republican senator, started playing during the pandemic to spend more time outside with her family. She co-chairs the new Senate pickleball caucus with Tillis and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst.
Nodding to the talk swirling about about fights over federal spending and the odds of a government shutdown, Capito said, “all of the cares, or all of the worries are in front of us, and we’ll deal with those, but not this morning. “
Capito faced Tillis on a court in the Dirksen Senate Office Building early last week, at an event that included officials from the professional league, the sport’s organizing group, and the D.C. Professional Pickleball Team. It’s an opportunity to talk about family and the game after the match. It’s an opportunity to communicate in a more relaxed way. This will help us to know the person we are looking at when we want to relax. “
North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis is the co-chair of the Senate Pickleball Caucus. He recently played with D.C. professional players.
The game has grown tremendously, with 48 million Americans playing it regularly according to Steve Kuhn. He founded Major League Pickleball, a professional league, two years ago. It was an opportunity for them to learn from the professionals. Kuhn also wanted to dispel stereotypes about the sport that could be holding it back. First, he says, it isn’t for old people.
Ten years ago, the average age of most pickleball players was in the fifties, now it’s in the thirties.
“This sport is the Benjamin Button of sports,” he said. It gets younger each year. Kuhn invited four players of D.C.’s co-ed professional pickleball team, who had played college tennis, to give a clinic in front of lawmakers. Kuhn said that last year, the prize money for the league was around $1 million. This year, it is expected to be as high as $5 million. Al Tylis who owns D.C.’s team told NPR that he was involved with other professional sports teams, but he became addicted to pickleball. The growth of the pickleball league is attributed to the fact that “it becomes contagious” when people begin playing. “
Lawmakers from both chambers, all ages, picking up paddles
Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, 34, is younger than the Senators in the caucus, and says some House members are starting their own pickleball caucus. She noted that unlike the Senate, they don’t have their own court, and if they want to play in Dirksen, they need to be invited by a Senator.
Jacobs is usually a tennis player, and was invited by Capito, and also took up pickleball after her parents started playing during COVID.
“It’s a really fun way to have like intergenerational camaraderie and you know, I think it’s a fun sport regardless of how old you are. Tillis has played 8 times, and says he plans to continue. Wyoming Republican Cynthia Lummis is a rookie but faced off against a Democrat she’s working on some new legislation with, New York Senator Kirstin Gillibrand.
Lummis joked that she thought both of their legislative styles were coming out on the pickleball court, calling Gillibrand “aggressive” and herself, pointing to her Wyoming roots, more “laid back. “
At an event for the Senate Pickleball Caucus, Senator Kirstin Gilibrand (left) and Sen. Cynthia Lummis (right) face off with members of D.C.’s professional pickleball teams.
Senator Kirstin Gillian, D-N.Y. (left) and Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wy.) face off at an event for the Senate Pickleball Caucus.
“I’m very aggressive in my legislation and in my sports,” She said. “
“I’m very aggressive in my legislation and in my sports,” She said.
Gillibrand usually plays a weekly tennis match on the Dirksen court, which plays triple duty with space for basketball, tennis and now, pickleball. Gillibrand, R-Texas Senator Ted Cruz had to negotiate around the basketball schedule of the Texas Senator. She decided to play pickleball, getting some tips from the DC team. They demonstrated strategies for hitting the winning shots near the net in the “kitchen,” the area on the court close to the net where Senators and pros were zinging across the net. Pickleball also has a co-ed version, so we can include our male colleagues. Kuhn handed out hats with the slogan “Pickleball will save America” on them. Kuhn distributed hats that read “Pickleball Will Save America”.